A range of specialist MBAs means there's more to choose from than just 'vanilla'

The general MBA does what it says on the tin. Rigorous and intellectually demanding, it's a postgraduate general management degree giving students the breadth they need to underpin a managerial role. For years it has been the gold standard, the qualification of choice for those seeking to prove their worth at the top. And entrants have to prove their worth - three years managerial work experience is the condition of entry to this route to the upper echelons.

In 2004, however, while the MBA retains a pre-eminent position, sands are shifting. Changing demands by employers and students, and increasing competition among a growing number of business schools has meant there are more variations on a theme on offer. General MBAs that offer more electives and can virtually turn themselves into specialisms; more fragmentation of the market into programmes geared to a specific sector such as the Masters in Public Administration; and a rise in the number of Masters courses aimed at the younger and less experienced who nonetheless want a business degree - the list is growing.

At Imperial College Business School in London, director David Begg says that his straight, or as he calls it his "vanilla" MBA "has been a wonderful product for a long time. But lots of people are now supplying similar things and employers were beginning to ask what distinguishes an Imperial MBA from any other," he says.

"They also said the vanilla MBA was great for those in investment banks but not necessarily for the high-tech industries Imperial often deals with. Those companies risked seeing the high-flyers they were sponsoring defecting to the banks, using the MBA as a springboard."

Imperial has therefore capitalised on its own speciality in engineering, medicine, computing and biotechnology, investing even its basic MBA with a unique component that suits high-tech sponsors. In the first term, students undertake a consultancy with a live technology venture and the course puts the emphasis on managing innovation, throwing out altogether some more general fare. In the future, says Begg, the school may introduce a part-time one-week residential programme, again reacting to employer demand - global firms wanting to fly people in for a week at a time. "We're still talking to them about whether we should be doing an MBE - a Masters in business and engineering," he says.

"Elective" subjects which allow specialisation on top of a core course are also increasingly popular. Accreditation to the Association of MBAs means courses must teach certain core areas - production and marketing, financing, managing change, the impact of environmental forces and human resources issues. But there is scope for students to specialise.

And as schools seek to differentiate themselves in a tough market, some, like Imperial, are going a step beyond to actively seek out the specialist. Henley Management College is working with Microsoft to create a marketing academy, the pinnacle of which would be a Henley MSc in marketing. Exeter, with a Centre for Leadership Studies, offers an MBA with a specialism in leadership. MSc degrees in public sector areas such as health and in finance have been popular for a while, and Cass Business School now has a Centre for Charity Effectiveness offering courses tailored to the charity and NGO market.

Everywhere there is a growth in courses aimed at the less experienced end of the market, a fact recognised by the Association of MBAs which will accredit "career-entry" Masters in management in currently recognised institutions from spring next year.

At Cass, students on a new MSc in management have just finished their first year, and course numbers are growing at twice the expected rate. Why has it been so successful? "We have specifically targeted the course at young people without much work experience", says Dr Rob Melville, course academic director. "We want to teach them good management habits rather than correct bad habits. If students are eligible for the MBA, they are not accepted on our course. We did this because the course is not designed for those with experience."

Other schools have also found this type of Masters course has plenty of takers. At Bristol Business School, director of MBA programmes Ken Russell says the school's full-time MA in marketing has attracted 40 entrants this year, up from 25 last year, while its full-time MBA has seen a parallel decrease in numbers.

"This has been a trend for a number of years but there has been a step change this year," he says. "Middle management are more of a target these days, there's more competition. People who don't necessarily have three years' experience to equip them for an MBA see the need to put themselves ahead of graduates, or think they need some underpinning of their career. This sort of course allows them to proceed on a functional pathway but gives them added value." MA and MSc courses are also, of course, much cheaper.

Ultimately, the degree to which students specialise will depend on specific needs and above all, how experienced they are. Chris Saunders, deputy director of the MBA programme at Lancaster University Business School, which has developed a number of new MSc courses in advanced marketing management, banking and e-business, says the school advises anyone with three years' plus experience to take their general MBA. If they have less experience, they would advise the MSc so candidates can work up the necessary experience to progress later.

In the end, the gold standard MBA is unlikely to lose its lustre. At Cass, Professor David Sims, MBA director of programmes warns that specialist MBAs can often end up like specialist training programmes, which mean candidates can't take a leading role in the company because they don't have the breadth of skills needed to operate as a business leader.

"I think it is generally more useful for experienced students to do an MBA that covers all the bases needed but also allows them to choose a range of electives, allowing them to specialise and have a competitive advantage," he says. "The danger of a functional background is that it might produce managers who just don't realise what it is they don't know about other backgrounds."